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Gardening with Nature #1: Food Forest Garden

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Blog entry by Radicalfarmergal posted 653 days ago 2368 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Gardening with Nature series Part 2: Developing a Blueberry Guild »

On the east side of our land, between our garden and the neighbor’s lawn, we had a patch of grass that has always turned brown and crunchy at the first sign of dry weather. Grubs loved it and bare patches of dirt were common. Due to its position at the top of the slope, its southern exposure, its proximity to the roots of our large silver maple tree and the absolute lack of any shade, the lawn never thrived. I thought if I made terraces to reduce the steepness of the slope and planted trees, shrubs and herbs to offer shade and help hold the moisture in the ground between rains, this area could really become productive.

To build the terraces, I first dug shallow trenches (swales) laid along the contour of the land so that the water wouldn’t flow along it but instead would collect and allow the soil to slowly absorb it. I used the sod and soil that I removed from the trenches to build a berm below the trench to increase its water holding capacity. I also used large logs from trees we had to take down after a storm to help build up the area below the trenches.

I then filled the trenches with all the old twigs and small branches I could find, trying to employ the ideas of hugelkultur. As the water collects in the trenches, the decaying wood absorbs the extra water and helps to hold it close to the roots of the plants. I covered the twigs and branches with a thick layer of goat bedding (hay mixed with goat manure). At the end, I had terraces rather than a slope.

It would have made sense to put the trenches in before I planted my trees and shrubs, but I don’t always have control over my time. Things don’t always get done when I would prefer them. Instead, I squeeze my projects in between my family activities. The terraces were not finished by the time the plants arrived so the plants went in first, leaving space for the terraces and swales to be completed.

When the terracing was finished and the major trees and shrubs in place, I laid down a thick layer of cardboard to cover the grass and covered the cardboard with wooden chips that are a by-product of splitting and chopping firewood.

In choosing the plants, I tried to make sure that I would have a collection of plants that would fulfill the roles of the plants that naturally live together in a forest, performing multiple function and working together to create a garden that could eventually sustain itself after it became established. For example, I incorporated plants that act as fertilizers because they either have tap roots that mine deeply for minerals (comfrey) or they fix nitrogen and store these minerals and nitrogen in their roots, leaves and branches (lupine, Sea Buckthorn, Siberian Pea Shrub). As roots die back and parts of the plant fall to the ground, the nitrogen becomes available to the other plants within the community. The faster growing plants, such as the comfrey and sea buckthorn, can be trimmed back and dropped onto the soil to build mulch. Other plants attract insects to pollinate the fruit bearing trees and bushes and provide habitats to encourage beneficial insects to remain in the garden.

Examples of plants that attract and provide shelter for beneficial insects:

Here is the plant community that I selected, organized by layers:

Canopy trees: American Persimmon, peach (from seed), cherry

Under-story trees and shrubs: Hazelnuts, Sea Buckthorn, high-bush blueberry and Saskatchewan berry bushes, Siberian pea shrub, cornelian cherry, elderberry

Herbaceous layer: Red current bushes, low-bush blueberry, comfrey, yarrow, day lilies, borage, perennial onions, hot peppers, amaranth, etc.

Ground cover layer – strawberries, violas

Soil layer – bulbs, onions, garlic

Climbing layer – I don’t have anything planted yet. I am still thinking about what might work here and what it might climb up.

Photo of the newly planted food forest garden in May 2012. (As you can see by the edge of the garden, I hadn’t quite finished covering the entire area with cardboard and woodchips when I took this photo.

Photo of the food forest garden after it had a few months to grow in August 2012.

As much as I have planted, I still do not have the diversity I want in the herbaceous layer. To help fix that, as my herb plants in other parts of my garden have flowered and produced seed, I have been dispersing the seeds through out the food forest garden area to have a denser, more diverse layer of herbs next year. Some of these include lupine, anise hyssop, calendula, nasturtiums, yarrow, broccoli raab, French Sorrel, New Zealand spinach, Good King Henry, lettuce, buckwheat and flax.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout



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Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

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15 comments so far

View daltxguy's profile

daltxguy

882 posts in 1704 days
hardiness zone 4a

posted 653 days ago

Some great ideas here, Robin. A lot of concepts brought together and expertly applied.
The garden already looks great and the fun with food forests is that they can be forever in transition and always look great and be forever a source of experiments but still be productive.

Looking forward to see how it fills in next year. In the meantime, you’ve given me some ideas! Thanks!

-- Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves. - Thoreau

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14682 posts in 2607 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 652 days ago

phew.. that’s a LOT of work.

Sounds like a perfect combination of plants as well as a great plan to make the challenging area a productive one.
I, too, look forward to future photos, seeing the more mature results of your labours.

Well done!

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 652 days ago

Thank you for your comments, Daltxguy and Debbie.

Daltxguy, I agree, food forest gardens are a wonderful place to experiment and learn. I am finding that all my gardens seem to be evolving toward a food forest as I try to emulate nature’s design methods. There are a few more plants that Amerindians used that Eric Toensmeier talks about on his website that I would like to introduce in this garden, such as the groundnut and the perennial wild bean.

I have been thinking about your land up in Canada. I just read an excellent book by Sepp Holtzer: Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening. He has worked his farm on an Austrian mountainside for forty years and has created quite an amazing sustainable farm. He has some wonderful ideas on how to create warm micro-climates using stones, water and terraces. If you haven’t come across him in your readings, I think you will find his book an inspiration. This is a farm that I would like to visit someday. Here are a few of his videos on YouTube that I think are particularly well done:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw7mQZHfFVE (Gardening with Nature)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bar82jvGvPE (Synergy of Water)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WddekwA23dk&list=UU8aUIkE-Ex2-MG4InOjRYRA&index=5&feature=plcp (Farming with terraces and raised beds)

The videos are available for sale as well. After reading his book and watching these videos, I am very interested in designing more above-ground water features on our little farm. Perhaps it will inspire you regarding the ponds on your land.

Debbie, it was lots of work, but I rarely can work on it for more than an hour or two at a time so it gets spread out across the seasons. I too am excited to see how it matures.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14682 posts in 2607 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 652 days ago

you have me all excited about next year! :D

Yes, I’ve see the videos and I’ve read some of his stuff .. not sure if it was books or just interviews etc. I remember the usage of stones. I guess I should re-arrange my rocks and use them more wisely.

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 646 days ago

Debbie, I really like his idea of building ponds without using cement or liners, just compacting the earth so well that the soil holds the water. I am wondering if it will be difficult to do without a backhoe on a small scale….. In his book, he has some great stories about ponds including how small, shallow ponds (mud wallows) are created by pigs as they create shallow areas in the mud by rolling around and use their weight to compact the mud so that the wallows will hold the water. There is another anecdote about how to avoid burdensome regulations regarding the implementation of a new pond by incrementally introducing first a bog, which can be gradually deepened into a shallow marshy area, shallow pond, continuing incrementally until, after a good deal of time has passed, you have a pond that has just always sort of been there! : )

If I can figure out a way to collect rain water from our barn roof (that won’t be completely damaged by the snowfall that comes racing down the steep slopes every winter) and divert it into a pond near the top of the property, perhaps I can begin a chain of ponds that trap and keep rain in the upper parts of the land. That way I can entice the reptiles and amphibians living in the lower part of the land up to the higher parts of the land so that they will work in my gardens for me. Or, I need to educate myself some more and learn how I can use some of the wild, marshy part of our land to grow different kinds of food. The possibilities are only limited by my imagination, time and energy!

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View Iris43's profile

Iris43

3807 posts in 2237 days
hardiness zone 5a

posted 646 days ago

It’s a good thing you are as young as you are, Robin. The undertaking you describe here will require much energy as well as time for it all to develop. I would love to see your projects! You dream big! :)

-- 'To plant a Garden is to believe in Tomorrow'

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14682 posts in 2607 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 645 days ago

haha Love the “pond that has always been there”—brilliant!!

The roof—you put a little metal ledge above the eavestrough. This makes a little ski slope for the snow, protecting the eavestrough. (That’s what I heard, anyway)

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 645 days ago

Iris, the designing process doesn’t take very much energy, just the implementation. If I do this, I expect the project will take years to complete. Right now my sons have dug a giant hole/fort where I think the highest pond will go. First I have to wait for them to grow old enough that they lose interest in the hole, then I can commandeer it for my first pond. : ) Here is a photo of my youngest in the hole last year. It is even bigger and deeper this year. Maybe I can take a chapter from Tom Sawyer and convince them to build a series of “forts” where I want them?

Debbie, that is what I am thinking about using but we get so much snow and it comes down with such force. When we first moved here, Chuck installed a wood stove in the barn so that he could work in the wood-shop during the winter but the snow just sheared off the stainless steel pipe at roof level the first time we had a real snow. It makes me cautious about what we should use.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14682 posts in 2607 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 645 days ago

check these out: http://www.myerschimney.com/product_products.htm#guard

how lucky of you to have excavators in the household.
Definitely start pointing out potential treasure areas .. perhaps a an old map that you find with “x” marks the spots on it :D

the holes remind me of my childhood.
While the parents were working in the fields we (as in the big boys with little me tagging along) dug giant holes, probably 12 feet deep and 3 feet across. We used tin cans to do the digging. Apparently (I forget this part) we covered them with branches or something and they were unknown to the adults until the tractor wheel fell into one. The very scared adults had the holes filled in immediately.
I remember my oldest cousin’s hole was very posh – it came with a bathroom!! (A coffee can). Lordy it stunk down there .. but it was very cool to have a bathroom!!

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View daltxguy's profile

daltxguy

882 posts in 1704 days
hardiness zone 4a

posted 645 days ago

Robin, thanks for the video references. I finally had a chance to watch them. What Sepp Holzer has done is truly quite interesting. It’s a shame I didn’t know about him 20 years ago when I lived in Austria.

I have several different types of terrain and some of his ideas are transferable while others are not. He has created a system which works very well where he is. The great thing about permaculture ( but perhaps also the challenge) is that there is no one system which works for everyone – the ideas must be blended, selected and tailored for the specific locations.

I observed this weekend while walking in the forest, which already has a dusting of snow on it, how exposed rocky areas were free of snow while areas next to them were not, showing that rock does indeed absorb a lot of the sun’s energy and can produce a microclimate around it.

I have a lot of natural water features already which I have to share with the beavers ( I enjoyed watching and helping them this weekend. This one busy beaver was floating back freshly cut branches to the lodge for food over the winter before the rest of the pond freezes over for good. Our temps are forecast to dip to as low as 15F overnight so this is likely to happen by the end of the week).

The beaver, btw, seems to have intentionally created a coppice and was now harvesting this area intensely. I helped and harvested a few branches with a hatchet, which the beaver hauled away within 20 minutes. You have your hobbit hole makers, I have the beavers!

The fun, I think, is to spend the time observing nature and then deciding how best to incorporate all of microclimates, wildlife and life cycles into a plan which produces for everyone.

I think I may have provided a reference to this story before: Dan Barber – How I fell in love with a fish. http://blog.ted.com/2010/03/10/how_i_fell_in_l/ where a farmer in spain guages how well his farm is doing by how much of the predators he is able to feed! Worth watching!

-- Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves. - Thoreau

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 639 days ago

Great story, Debbie. Your parents were lucky that only one tractor wheel fell in….What would have happened if the entire tractor did? We too dug huge holes when I was a child, only ours were out in the desert where the only thing to watch out for were sunburns, rattlesnakes and scorpions. Mostly we just found lots of sand, rocks, lizards and fun. : ) I love your treasure map idea; it definitely has possibilities!

I did enjoy that video very much, Daltxguy – a successful business model from a completely different perspective. I agree nothing is directly transferable but learning what other people have noticed and tried helps me see things in nature that I might have overlooked before. After reading Sepp Holtzer, I went down to our pond and noticed how the ice next to the stones in the sunlight had melted even when the center of the pond was frozen to several inches thick. I am noticing how snow lasts longer on the mulched areas compared to areas covered with grasses and how thinly the snow falls under trees and shrubs compared to exposed areas without a canopy. I have started to think about how far our frogs, turtles and amphibians have to travel to get from our pond/swamp up to our food gardens and the lack of protective cover to shield them from predators on that journey. Just think what you can learn from watching beavers! What kind of trees are responding to the coppice treatment the best? Have fun with your land and post your progress because I would really like to see it.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

View sharad's profile

sharad

1632 posts in 1824 days
hardiness zone 11

posted 638 days ago

Robin, the whole story about Gardening with Nature is thrilling. As usual you have described it so nicely. You are a very special gardener with imagination. Your knowledge about different trends and skills in gardening is amazing. I understood a few new words like swales, bern, hugelkultur, bog and coppice from your blog. I enjoyed all the videos referred by you, Debbie and Daltxguy. Debbie you all were quite mischievous in making big trenches to trouble the elders! I am wondering how you must have made hole as deep as 12 feet!
Robin, I am also waiting to watch your plans to complete.

Sharad

-- Bagwan-- “If someone feels that they had never made a mistake in their life, then it means they have never tried a new thing in their life”.-Albert Einstein

View daltxguy's profile

daltxguy

882 posts in 1704 days
hardiness zone 4a

posted 638 days ago

RFG and all:

I found this Sepp Holzer book which you can read online:
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening - Free eBook!

-- Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves. - Thoreau

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

14682 posts in 2607 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 637 days ago

good observations Robin … I’ll be watching to see how you incorporate the information into upcoming designs!

-- - Debbie, SW Ontario Canada (USDA Hardiness Zone: 5a)

View Radicalfarmergal's profile

Radicalfarmergal

4296 posts in 1869 days
hardiness zone 5b

posted 636 days ago

Thank you for the link, Daltxguy. That is the book I borrowed from the library.

Thank you, Sharad and Debbie. The more I read and the more experience I gain through experimenting in my gardens, the more I am realizing the complexity and interconnectedness of nature and how little of it I actually understand. Gardening/farming is a lifetime endeavor for me and I am enjoying the learning process immensely.

-- "...I have nothing against authorities as such; I am only in favor of putting a question mark after just about everything they say." Ruth Stout

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